Ancient Egyptian Semitic Snake Spells (or “Snakes in a Pyramid”)

“Ancient Egyptian Semitic Snake Spells” — say that five times fast! As I am getting caught up on some blogging, Shawn Flynn had brought to my attention an interesting article about some semitic spells found on the walls of the pyramid of King Unas at Saqqara (BTW: Shawn has a relatively new blog called Palimpsest that is definitely worthy of our blogrolls).

Here’s an excerpt of the article from the National Geographic News:

The Canaanite spells were invoked to help protect mummified kings against poisonous snakes, one of ancient Egypt’s most dreaded nemeses.

According to the incantations, female snakes—acting as mediators for Canaanite magicians—used their multiple mouths and sexual organs to prevent other snakes from entering the mummified rulers’ remains.

The passages date from between 2400 to 3000 B.C. and appear to be written in Proto-Canaanite, a direct ancestor of biblical Hebrew.


Experts had attempted without success to decipher the serpent spells as if they were ordinary Egyptian texts composed in hieroglyphic characters.

But in 2002 a colleague asked Richard Steiner, a professor of Semitic languages and literature at New York’s Yeshiva University, if the texts might be Semitic.

“I immediately recognized the Semitic words for ‘mother snake,'” Steiner said at a recent lecture at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he presenting the findings.

“Later it became clear that the surrounding spells, composed in Egyptian rather than Semitic, also speak of the divine mother snake and that the Egyptian and Semitic texts elucidate each other,” he added.

“It was hiding there in plain sight,” Steiner told National Geographic News. “It’s unintelligible to Egyptologists, but it makes perfect sense to Semitists.”

This discovery perhaps has some interesting implications for history of the Hebrew language and relationships between Egypt and the Canaanites.

Yeshiva University also has a press release about the report, while Shawn blogs about the report here.

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One Response to Ancient Egyptian Semitic Snake Spells (or “Snakes in a Pyramid”)

  1. Pingback: Ketuvim: the Writings of James R. Getz Jr. Interesting Incantations «

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